Chemistry is a tricky thing – even more so when it comes to TV shows. Blend seemingly disparate personalities together well and you get undeniable boob-tube classics like Cheers or Friends; miscalculate and you get The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer or The Mike O'Malley Show. The Shield, a jewel in cable network FX's crown, has been, for three seasons, been reliably raw, unflinching and compulsively watchable. For the fourth season, premiered in March 2005, the show's creative team took a gamble by introducing two new characters, both of whom were intensely charismatic – Captain Monica Rawling (Glenn Close) and troublemaker Antwon Mitchell (Anthony Anderson) – and the results were, well, mixed.
You could make the argument that season four of The Shield was too diffuse, perhaps even playing it a little safe by spreading itself thin and pulling its focus from the most compelling storylines. Still fueled by Michael Chiklis' compelling performance as wayward street cop Vic Mackey, season four feels far less tightly wound than previous seasons – that said, even the most limp episode of The Shield is better than 90 percent of what passes as entertainment on television these days. Juggling the arcs of Capt. Rawling, Vic, the reckless Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), former Capt. David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) and Antwon proved to be too mighty a task as some plotlines got short shrift and others too much attention; the writers' ambition is certainly noteworthy, but, for instance, the protracted will-Shane-get-busted plotline feels tired and wrung out – for my money, the creative team has yet to equal the white-knuckle Armadillo Quintero arc of season two for sheer tension and dramatic payoff, although the bristling parry and thrust of the Antwon-Monica-Vic interrogation scenes does give the season some much needed juice.
Still, as I said earlier, with some of the finest writing on television (cable or otherwise) and a roster of directors with a keen eye for rough-and-tumble urban storytelling, The Shield has few equals. This 13-episode season, as previously mentioned, has its moments and even netted Emmy nominations for Close and CCH Pounder (who plays the role of Detective Claudette Wyms). It's probably the first season of The Shield that only merits re-watching for a few key episodes, rather than the whole season; there's no one element that can be singled out as the reason for the decline, but suffice to say, there's a certain edge that's just not there this time around. The fifth season, the first episode of which, "Extraction," is set to premiere January 10 on FX, has been rumored to be the drama's last hurrah – according to reports, FX has ordered 21 episodes, eight more than normal and the teaser commercials, currently airing on the network and highlighting the addition of Forest Whitaker to the cast (a promo that relies heavily on footage from earlier seasons plays at the beginning of disc four), feature the tag line "The beginning of the end." Whether or not Shawn Ryan plans to say farewell to Vic Mackey and crew (as of this writing, there's been no official comment), it's certainly possible - there's a sense of more or less returning things to the status quo at season four's end; for all of the sturm und drang, season four wraps up fairly quietly, leaving fans hoping the next season returns the show to its trademark breakneck unpredictability.
The fourth season of The Shield is spread across four discs by Fox and packaged in a cardboard slipcase housing four slimline cases.
The DVDThe Video
With its clean 1.33 fullscreen image, made to look as though it's shot on 16 mm film (same as the original broadcasts on FX), The Shield looks every bit as gritty as the world it inhabits. Restless handheld cameras, high-contrast lighting and considerable amounts of grain (particularly in low light and in nighttime scenes) only serve to enhance the scuzzy, fly-on-the-wall atmosphere fashioned by the show's creators.
As a curious, but welcome, bonus this season, the extended episode "Back In The Hole" is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, but don't get too excited – this widescreen presentation is just as grungy and grainy as the other 12 episodes.The Audio
Dolby 2.0 stereo is the only option available; there's a bit of punch every so often from gunshots or car crashes – source music and the show's aggressive theme sound crisp and full. Dialogue is clear and while it would be nice if the show could be remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 to take advantage of the street environment Vic and the Strike Team call home, what's on hand is adequate.The Extras
Commentaries from various cast and crew members are included on eight of the 13 episodes; all of the show's principal players, writers, producers and directors are here. The tracks reveal the warm camaraderie this group shares but there's also a generous amount of time spent with the talent being awfully self-congratulatory. The regular cast members are alternately stunned they landed Glenn Close and way too proud of the fact that she agreed to do the show. It makes for an odd schism that, at times, seems strangely defensive, as if the creative team knows that compared to other seasons, season four is slightly subpar. Nevertheless, these are mostly great tracks overall, with a few brief gaps of dead air.
Also onboard are a total of 42 deleted scenes, broken down by episode (as detailed above), presented in slightly less polished form than the broadcast version of the show and "Under The Skin," a 60-minute documentary which takes you behind the scenes of the fourth season, featuring soundbites from nearly everyone associated with the show. Episode information is on the back of each slimline case while each episode also has a "previously on..." recap at the beginning and the first episode has a "last season on..." recap. English and Spanish subtitles are also included.Final Thoughts
For those who love visceral, involving and intelligent drama, I can't recommend The Shield highly enough. However, despite all of its positive attributes, season four is not the show's strongest – the addition of Glenn Close and Anthony Anderson, while they both turned in stellar performances, ultimately diluted the show's focus and lent a sense of distraction. For die-hard fans of the show, this is a no-brainer, but those unfamiliar with The Shield are advised to begin with season one. Recommended.